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Researching to Rewrite Our Own Happy Endings

Northwestern researcher explores the power of personal narrative in a happy life

  • Undergrad conducted research in the lab of leading psychologist Dan McAdams
  • McAdams best known for formulating a life-story theory of human identity
  • Research examined how personal narrative affects long-term well-being

This is another in a series of Q&As profiling Northwestern undergraduate researchers.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Who am I?

It’s a question almost everyone grapples with at some point in life.

To help find the answer, narrative psychologists argue that individuals create their own “life stories” by reconstructing the past in order to make sense of the present. These life stories can be analyzed in terms of plots, characters and themes just like a literary work. 

With the field of narrative psychology gaining ground, one Northwestern University undergraduate is in the thick of it.

Halimah Jones, a senior in the School of Education and Social Policy, is working alongside Dan McAdams, one of the field’s leading scientists. Jones is conducting research of her very own thanks to undergraduate research funding. 

“We all do it,” Jones said. “Human beings all experience trauma, and we all make sense of life through the stories we tell about ourselves.”

Narrative psychology attempts to help people interpret and reshape their life story.

“Putting a positive spin on the past,” she said, “can have a positive impact on a person’s psychological and social well-being in the present.”

To prove her theory, Jones and another researcher spent the summer analyzing 160 lengthy interviews to discover if negative outlooks on life after enduring hardships correlates with negative well-being. 

Jones first became interested in psychology during her freshman year and was later hired as a research assistant to McAdams.

McAdams, who has had his work published in the New York Times and the Atlantic, is regarded as a rock star in the world of narrative psychology.

The Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern, McAdams is best known for developing a life-story theory of human identity. The theory maintains that people validate their lives with a sense of unity and purpose by creating and interpreting self-defining life stories.

“At this point in my life, I feel like I’ve started to figure out who I am,” said Jones, offering a bit of her own personal narrative. “I really found myself at Northwestern.” 

Read more in a Q&A with Jones, who recently spoke to Northwestern News about her research and reflected on her time at Northwestern.

How are you using personal life stories for psychological research?

Stories are an important part of human culture. They not only help us interact with the world around us and understand people better, but they also allow us to conceptualize our identity in terms of our relationships with others. There is the psychological idea of a “narrative identity,” which is the story that a person constructs and internalizes to integrate past, present, and future and to give their life meaning and purpose.

What could be done with your research results?

Right now it seems like a lot of students are being taught subjects, like math and science, but you also have to help them psychologically because it is such a critical point in their life. For example, in reflecting on a character’s redemptive journey in class, students could be asked to write a short essay about a situation in their lives when they felt sad and how they turned it around. The idea of using life stories and applying that knowledge into a school setting really interests me and is something I could see myself doing in the future.

What have you learned from your research experience?

I’ve realized I can really make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve really started to think that way about my research; it’s more than just a line on my resume.

What has it been like working with Prof. McAdams?

He has been a really great resource that I feel very lucky to have. He is super busy but he still finds time for all of his students. He has really been trying to push me to take this on and be independent, but he still is there to support me when I need him. He has made me a better student and a better researcher. 

Have you seen your own life story evolve while at Northwestern?

Absolutely! All of my experiences over the past three years have helped me get to where I am thanks to a lot of positive peer pressure from the people I’ve met at Northwestern who inspire me every day.

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